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Review: When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Reviewer: Christopher Youngblood

 

This is going to be a difficult film review largely in part to the fact that it is almost two different movies in one. This is a classic film which is considered a horror movie but many feels that it belonged in the action/thriller genre. That is because the film takes a strange twist in the second act of the film and strays so far from the opening sequence, but more on that later. Let's get to the plot of the story.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) was your typical teenager in the 1970's who would earn extra money babysitting. When she is at one of her babysitting jobs for a prominent doctor and his wife she encounters a nightmare that would effect her for the rest of her life. While she is babysitting she begins to receive strange phone calls from a stranger asking her if she had checked the the children? Jill first ignores the calls thinking it is one of her friends playing a prank on her. But when the calls persist, she gets concerned and calls the police. The police at first are not very interested in getting involved because the caller did not threaten the babysitter in any way. But when a second call from Jill insisting that she is scared is received, the police agree to trace the calls. When the stranger calls again the police call Jill back informing her that the calls are coming from inside of the house and to get out immediately! Screaming for her life she begins to open the front door as she sees a shadow emerge from the upstairs heading in her direction. When she gets into the door she runs into a police investigator played by Charles Durning. Jill then finds out that the children she was babysitting were brutally murdered hours earlier by the madman hiding in one of the upstairs bedrooms. The plot then jumps forward 7 years and the identity of the madman is revealed to be Curt Duncan played wonderfully by Tony Beckley. Duncan manages to escape from the mental hospital that had jailed him for the previous 7 years and he begins to try and find a place in society. He meets a woman (Colleen Dewhurst) in a bar and develops a strange infatuation over her and begins stalking her. Durning now a private detective gets hired by the slain children's parents to hunt down Duncan. Will Curt Duncan return to his old psycho habits with his new infatuation... and will he be found in time?

There are many good things about this picture and the opening sequence is one them! Bar none it was scary as hell! The opening sequence has also made it in Bravo's 100 scariest moments in movie history.The idea of placing the caller in the house was terrifyingly great idea by director/co-writer Fred Walton. Walton who would later grace us slasher fans with "April Fools Day" and another very good movie called "The Rosary Murders" which also starred Charles Durning. Then doing mostly TV work, Walton penned and directed the sequel to this film "When A Stranger Calls Back" and brought back Carol Kane and Charles Durning again for the sequel which was surprisingly very good!

Where this film went wrong in a way was the second act after the terrifying opening sequence. The movie just stalls for way to long as we are introduced to the stranger and watch as he battles his way to fit into society. You almost feel bad for the son of a bitch at times and I often wondered what Fred Walton was trying to convey in the middle part of the story. It slows down and becomes quite boring as we watch Duncan stalk a woman he meets in a bar and tries desperately to get her to be friends with him. My question is this..."Who in the hell cares about this sub-plot of the story"?! The story goes nowhere fast and is dragged on far to long with no conclusion. That is until Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is reintroduced into the story as a grown woman with her own kids. Then the story gets interesting and quite scary again up until the shocking climax!

To me it's evident that Walton set out to make a unique and scary movie unlike anything seen before that focused on mood and suspense. For the most part he succeeded because this movie still stands on it's own today, largely due to the opening act of the film. I do feel I should alert the readers of RetroSlashers.net that this is not your typical slasher movie and like I said in the beginning of this review that many people feel it was more of an action/thriller than a horror. But my stance is that with that "Scary as hell opening and the diddy of an ending" this goes down as a fine horror film. As mentioned earlier as well there was a sequel to this film and like it's sister film the opening sequence to that was scary as hell as well. But Walton played it much smarter when he wrote the sequel and kept the story moving along nicely through to the shocking ending of that one as well. A fine sequel indeed and in ways was better than the original. In 2006 a remake was made of the original casting a gorgeous teenager (Camilla Belle) in the role of Carol Kane and stretched the opening of the original into an entire film. It was pretty well done and was definitely creepy but was nothing like the original. The story of "When A Stranger Calls" is often still told today as an urban legend. Not bad for a horror movie to live on in stories being told as actually happening. "By the way did you hear the story of that Babysitter from Rondell High who was murdered last week?

 
  
 

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